Halo Wars (Xbox 360)
This is a review I don't want to write. The closing of Ensemble Studios was a great loss for fans of real-time strategy games, and the developer has given me some of my favorites in the genre. Ensemble's Age of Empires III is a grand accomplishment that I'll still be playing years from now. So I had hoped its final game, Halo Wars, would be a supernova RTS achievement. It's not. It's yet another attempt to shove a PC-shaped RTS into a console-shaped hole. This is the way Ensemble ends: not with a bang but a whimper.
There's a lot of really nice Halo atmosphere here, from the familiar green-and-purple aesthetic to cut scenes with high production values. The storyline, a prequel to the shooters, hits all the usual Halo beats: Covenant, then Flood, then super Precursor weapon with automated defenses, then a bomb, and then a big explosion, and then a sappy ending. The writing isn't very good, and the only memorable character is the ship's sassy AI, who's sort of like Cortana with an attitude glitch. But even though the single-player campaign is your typical dull, scripted stuff that only lets you play as the space marines, it has a few memorable set pieces. I'd even go so far as to say it's got a lot of replayability, thanks to Ensemble's clever adaptation of Halo 3's co-op gameplay and secret skull system.
As a multiplayer game, there's clever asymmetry between the humans and the aliens, but in a post-StarCraft world, it's hard to shake the feeling that two sides is at least one side too few. It's a shame the Flood and the Halo defenses aren't playable, although they are built into a couple of the multiplayer maps. The skirmish artificial intelligence is pretty good, varying its tactics and using special abilities sensibly. But as a multiplayer game, I have to wonder what sort of community this game will have. I'm not convinced there's a large audience for Halo Wars. The Halo name will be a huge draw, but will Halo fans want to play a console RTS? Will they be as dedicated to this as they are their beloved shooter? Or will this dwindle to a small community of hardcore players? Time will tell.
Lean mean RTS machine
If there's one word you could apply to Halo Wars, it's streamlined. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the streamlining helps make it manageable. The units are mostly broad strokes, with no more than 10 per side. The economy is simple and hands-off. The base-building is focused on pre-set nodes on the maps. The tactical AI is expected to take care of most of the basics during a battle. There aren't any numbers to fuss with in terms of unit damage, hit points, upgrades and so on.
But this is still very much an RTS in the PC tradition. It's based on drag-selecting units without drag-selecting, moving around the map quickly without being able to use the mini-map, and pinpoint-clicking without a pinpoint-accuracy pointer. In other words, the curse of mouse-less real-time strategy gaming. Here you won't find any EndWar-style flash of genius or Pikmin-esque revolution. Halo Wars simply does what most other RTSes in the same situation do: shrugs and tries to make the best of it.
It's a mostly admirable attempt, and it benefits from not being ported over from a PC version. It's paced much more slowly and methodically than other RTSes. Money is slow to build up, forcing fewer and tougher choices, and smaller armies. Every unit is important, even the throwaway grunts. Units die slowly, giving you time to pay attention and manage the battles. Whereas Electronic Arts' recent Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 was all about making the game play fast, fast, fast so that something was always happening, Halo Wars is about playing smart, smart, smart so that you're always making decisions. Ensemble knows better than to pander by going large, dumb, fast and sloppy.
This makes it all the more disappointing when Halo Wars falls apart around the interface, which is about 80 percent of what it needs to be. You can go a long way with what you're given. For instance, there's no way to make control groups, so you'd think you're supposed to manage all your units as a single blob. But Ensemble's answer to control groups, a feature aimed at power users, is a downward press of the d-pad. This cycles through the discrete clusters of units on the map without the need for manually designating groups. Just grab some guys, send them away, and you can easily reach them by pressing the d-pad down. Given the pacing of the economy and the combat, these broad controls mostly work.
But then you get to the finer -- and arguably more important -- points of controlling your units during battle. This is where things start to come apart. The point of having fewer types of units in Halo Wars is that each one more important. You can upgrade any unit type, making it more powerful and even giving it special abilities. This forces some broad strategic choices about how you're going to play, and it'll have direct tactical implications during a battle. Do you add rocket launchers to your infantry, do you boost the firepower of your Hornets, or do you add a special canister barrage to your Scorpion tanks? You probably can't afford them all, so you have to choose where you want to focus. And then you have to emphasize that strength during the battles, often by using each unit's special ability.
When it comes to using a unit's special ability -- to taking advantage of the broader strategic choices you've made -- the interface unravels. Here's where all of Ensemble's shortcuts just draw a blank. Here's where you have to resort to that old chestnut of using the analog stick as if it were a mouse pointer, picking your infantry units out one-by-one, then selecting the unit's target, then firing the rocket, then going back for the next infantry unit to do it again. The alternative is to simply select every single infantry unit on the screen and have them all fire their rockets at once. That's fine if you're attacking a huge base. It's overkill at any other time. Halo Wars isn't quite up to the task of helping you fight effectively. It's an interface that can manage the big picture, but is incapable of getting down into the finer points of gameplay. Imagine trying to get a splinter out of your finger not with tweezers, but with a pair of barbeque tongs.
Fire when you see the whites of ? oh, never mind
Making matters worse is the lack of an attack-move to keep your units at a smart fighting distance. Instead, you can only direct units to some general point and hope they're within firing range. Otherwise, just march them right up into enemy fire. Ensemble actually removed attack-moves from Age of Empires III for a while, which makes me wonder if they understand the importance of the feature. I don't want my little guys moving any closer to enemy fire than necessary. Ensemble doesn?t seem to share my concern.
Then you throw in the terrible pathfinding AI that can't quite tell its elbow from a hole in the ground. Halo Wars is often about large armies and chokepoints. This is a disastrous combination if you don't have an AI that knows how to find its way around. While the pace of gameplay is mostly manageable, it's not manageable enough for me to untangle my infantry from my fat tanks while my flying units soar blithely ahead of everyone else. And without any sort of formation AI, something that Age of Empires III did beautifully, Halo Wars is a game about blobby armies trying unsuccessfully to squeeze themselves through narrow passages. At times, it's positively sclerotic.
And remember those special attacks I was mentioning? Some of them are dependent on position. It's bad enough trying to gauge where an artillery unit is supposed to unpack to reach a target. But what's worse is telling my Warthogs to use their ramming ability against specific infantry units. I'm supposed to single out each individual Warthog and tell it specifically which enemy infantry unit to run over? And I'm supposed to do this with virtually no help from the interface? And then I'm supposed to trust that the Warthog can pathfind its way through my blobby army to the target? And yeah, it's awfully cool that I can build Spartans and have them hijack an enemy vehicle. That's a nice bit of Halo flavor. But while I'm giving my own little Master Chief orders and he makes his way to a Wraith, I guess I?m also supposed to manually tell everyone not to shoot that Wraith because I'm about to commandeer it? I'm supposed to go back to my base and then pick out each individual structure to order up new units? I'm supposed to choose between using the mini-map for the big picture or the local tactical picture, with no way to toggle between them short of going into the game's options menu?
Halo Wars has far too many instances of cool features that simply don't work given the scale of the game, the inadequate interface and the mob-rule tactical AI. There are a few undocumented shortcuts, such as double-clicking the left analog stick to set a global rally point or holding down the X button to set waypoints. A few more power-user features like this, particularly to help with units' special abilities in combat, and Halo Wars might have pulled it off. Instead, I can only damn it with the following faint praise: This is one of the least-bad adaptations of real-time strategy gaming to a console system.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.